Talk about blood libels. At the same time media outlets were reporting the demolition of yet another Palestinian home in occupied East Jerusalem last month — this one sending four families into the cold — a daily email I receive along with many other Orthodox Jews declared that, according to one Rabbi Gamliel Rabanovitch, “the Arabs seek nothing else but Jewish blood.”
It got worse. The Jerusalem-based rabbi had advice, too, in a Yiddish-language recording to which the email directed me: “The way to prevent the Arabs from any future success in this area is by making our blood holy … so that they can have … no power over it.” He concluded that Jews should protect themselves against Palestinians by consuming only kosher food.
Some readers may find this merely funny. I wish I could.
This succinct amalgam of racism and superstition was distributed barely 24 hours after the murders of three rabbis (and another worshiper) during morning prayers in Har Nof — a stone’s throw from where my eighteen-year-old daughter is now studying in a Jerusalem religious school.
My son, a few years older, also studies in a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Deadly violence in that ancient city, and the official racism that has been fueling it, cannot help but touch me intimately.
Nor can I dismiss this latest statement as the raving of a marginal fanatic.
I am quite sure it doesn’t represent the opinion of all, or even of most, Orthodox Jews. But I’m afraid it does fit all too well into a pattern in which traditional Jewish authorities react to Israel’s intensifying terror against Palestinians not on the basis of the deep-seated ethical standards of Jewish tradition but with fear, magic and religious bigotry. And a more dangerous response could hardly be imagined.
Showing their true colors
The problem isn’t new. Dozens of prominent Orthodox rabbis in Israel had already shown their true colors four years ago, when in a written statement they publicly declared it a sin to sell — or even to rent — houses to non-Jews because “their way of life is different.”
That drew a protest even from Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. But it’s nothing compared to the recent claim by Yisrael Hagar, a head rabbi of the Vizhnitz Hasidic movement, that Palestinians (or “Ishmaelites,” as he called them) are not human beings at all.
Even more stunning, the Orthodox online journal Yeshiva World News, which reported that slur on 23 November, expressed no opinion on it.
Can you imagine a Jewish periodical going tongue-tied if a Catholic bishop denied the humanity of all Jews?
Yet so far, I’m hearing very little from the Orthodox rabbinate that attempts to summon the moral resources of Judaism to condemn the occupation of Palestinian land, to say nothing of the increasingly brutal repression of the Palestinian population.
Orthodox rabbis expressed sorrow and anger — fully justified, of course — after the massacre in Har Nof. But I have yet to hear a eulogy for the 2,200 slaughtered in Gaza during the summer, including more than 500 children, nor for any of the Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank — not even when video evidence revealed the shooting of two children to be cold-blooded murder.
Worse, at least some Orthodox institutions are edging steadily into the orbit of Israel’s apartheid politics.
Ohr Somayach, a leading yeshiva for newly Orthodox Jews, stayed aloof from Zionism when I studied at its Monsey, New York, branch decades ago. Today, it is building a new facility in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem.
Aish HaTorah, a particularly prominent Orthodox “outreach” organization, has close ties to the Israeli government and has been heavily involved in producing anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim propaganda that has drawn protests from some American Jews, including non-Orthodox rabbis.
But the Orthodox rabbinate remains oblivious to this, behaving exactly as it did fourteen years ago when the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of Israel’s most prominent Orthodox clergymen, called Palestinians “snakes despised by God.” Nor has the Orthodox rabbinate taken a principled stand on the most recent wave of violence against Palestinians throughout Jerusalem and elsewhere, which has included beatings (in one case with iron rods and bats) and an arson attack on a joint school for Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.
It’s true that the Orthodox Union, one of the largest Orthodox rabbinic organizations in the United States, recently issued a statement in which it condemned “rhetoric” that “resorts to wholesale demonization, advocates for the collective punishment of Israeli Arabs [Palestinian citizens of Israel], or calls for the destruction or dismantling of Muslim holy places.”
These are sound words — but they would have been more credible had they not been accompanied, in the very same public statement, by the claim that Palestinians are waging “an ongoing terror campaign to oust the Jewish people from the land of Israel” and an assurance that “a forceful response by Israeli security officials” is “morally justified and necessary to stop the brutality that threatens … the civilized world.”
Maybe I’ve missed something, but isn’t denouncing all Palestinians who oppose Israel’s occupation as a mortal threat to civilization exactly the sort of “demonization” the Orthodox Union says it deplores? And since, as everyone knows, Israel’s “forceful response” to attacks by individual Palestinians has included demolishing their families’ homes and expelling more residents from East Jerusalem, how can the Orthodox Union endorse the response as “morally justified” and still claim to oppose “collective punishment?”
Not to mention that the same Orthodox Union that now worries about calls for destroying Muslim holy places had no objection to Israel’s leveling of more than seventy mosques during Operation Protective Edge, as Israel’s summertime offensive against Gaza was called.
Silence is complicity
So I’m still waiting for something fundamental from the Orthodox rabbinate: a denunciation of the occupation of Palestinian land as the fundamental evil it truly is. And I’m waiting with increasing anxiety — not only for Palestinians but for my Jewish friends in Israel, and now for my own children as well.
The wrongs systematically inflicted on Palestinians — by a state that insists on its Jewish character and maintains an official Orthodox Jewish rabbinate — ought to be enough to attract the moral concern of Orthodox Jews.
But there is also a more selfish reason. Violence breeds violence, and it is hard to imagine that Israel’s increasingly brutal occupation will not spur further acts of desperate retaliation.
Of course, I do not know whether vigorous protest from Orthodox rabbis could sway Israel’s policy toward Palestinians. And it’s quite possible that many Orthodox rabbis, immersed in Talmudic subjects, simply don’t know the details of Israel’s crimes.
But the silence of those who do know makes them complicit in what they ignore. And Israel’s government thrives on silence exactly as a thief thrives on darkness.
So in the name of the rabbis killed at prayer in Har Nof, in the name of the children shot and bombed and shelled in the West Bank and Gaza, and on behalf of the living who mourn them, in the name of all these and more, I ask the Orthodox rabbinate: Where is your voice in this time of crisis?
As state-sponsored terror flows through Jerusalem, are you going to speak out on behalf of all victims, or will we continue to hear little but party-line fanaticism and bigotry against Palestinians? The time could hardly be more critical: as the ancient sage Hillel put it, “If not now, when?”
Michael Lesher, an author and lawyer, has published numerous articles dealing with child sexual abuse and other topics. He is the author of the recent book Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., Inc.), which focuses on cover-ups of abuse cases among Orthodox Jews. He lives in Passaic, New Jersey. More information about his work can be found on his web site www.MichaelLesher.com.